Natural wine: nature as a trend

©Pixabay, User: Free-Photos

The misconception that writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau uttered the “back to nature” call is just as untrue as the urban legend that Captain Kirk said the words “Beam me up, Scotty” in the Star Trek series. Nonetheless, “back to nature” seems to be all the rage in the wine industry: Natural wine is making a comeback.

As far as wine is concerned, Rousseau’s teachings on nature seem to be on everyone’s minds. At least that’s what’s indicated by the “back to nature” trend of bringing back the original methods of grape cultivation and wine production. Many people know that wine production dates back around ten thousand years and was, for a long time, done without any knowledge of biochemistry, any use of sophisticated technology and without any sulfur or other antioxidants.

Natural wine has many different names, but just one goal

“Natural wine” has now become a well-established term in the wine industry and is referred to all around the world by different names, such as natural wine, artisan wine, naked wine, raw wine and pure wine. For several years now, the UK has hosted “Raw Wine,” a trade fair for enthusiasts that is dedicated to this very topic.

But what is natural wine, exactly? Is it just a trend? Is it just a sales gimmick? Is it all just hot air? According to the biggest players on the market, the wine should be produced preferably without any additives and simply in vineyards and cellars. Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that natural wine can be subdivided into three categories: natural wine, orange wine and amphora wine.

“Controlled hands-off approach” 

There are no legal regulations governing what does and doesn’t constitute natural wine. Instead, a kind of “common sense” approach has been developed that stipulates that the grapes should be produced using biological and biodynamic methods and that there should be as little interference as possible both in vineyards and cellars.

Increasing the must weight by adding sugar is as frowned upon as acidification to increase the acid content and reduce the pH value. The same goes for imitating a flavor usually achieved through barrel aging by using wood chips, tannin powder or liquid tannin extracts. Heavily interfering with the wine production process in any way, whether physically or chemically, flies in the face of the natural wine concept. The best way to describe the production method is as a “controlled hands-off approach,” whereby you simply have to accept the fact that you won’t be able to tell if production has gone to plan or not until right at the every end. There are no statutory regulations or definitions in place, which means that most wines are also sold as table wines and not high-quality wines. It would be a real first in the wine industry if a region that used the term “natural wine” as a standard were to receive a protected designation of origin classification in accordance with European Union regulations. It would probably cause uproar among conventional winegrowers.

Orange wine is a specific type of natural wine…

As already mentioned, orange wine and amphora wine are very closely related to natural wine. These terms have been floating around the wine scene for quite some time now. Orange wine gets its name from the color of the finished product, which is often light orange. The production process is incredibly easy if you know what you’re doing: The wine is pressed from white grapes and, like red wine, is fermented on the mash or the grapes. Unlike with red wine, however, where the red pigments make their way into the pressed must and create the red color, it’s the tannins and phenols in the white wine that condense, depending on the wine’s chemical environment, to form complex cyclic compounds and hence give the wine an orange tint.

Generally speaking, neither selected yeast nor enzymes or other additives are added to natural wine, and once fermentation is complete, the fermented young wines are also not filtered. Instead, following fermentation, the wine spends a long time in contact with the yeast. During this time, the wine absorbs substances from the yeast autolysis, making it more full-bodied and rounded.

…with a specific taste

Orange wine tastes different than conventional wine and is often denser and more complex, yet more stable. It may sometimes have hints of sherry notes. Things that might be considered undesirable for other types of wine are accepted and actually encouraged here. The wine has an incredibly long shelf life. This is because substances that are otherwise preserved in wines that undergo conventional reductive aging and contribute to continuous oxidation have already been oxidized in orange wine. The actual goal in most cases, however, is not to produce oxidized wine but to ensure that the fermentation and aging are carried out in such a way as to prevent any further oxidation. Wine can ultimately only be kept for longer if oxygen is prevented from having any further effect. Ideally, this means that the wine needs very little sulfur protection from oxidation, which is also one of the main reasons for producing natural and orange wine.

Back to the roots: amphora wine

Some winegrowers are even going one step further into unfamiliar territory by producing amphora wine. Instead of fermenting and aging the wine in wooden barrels or stainless-steel tanks, they use clay pots similar to amphorae used in ancient times, hence the name. This aging process is still practiced today in Georgia. There, the clay pots are referred to as “Qvevri,” and, once filled, are buried in the ground up to their necks. Even in Spain, wine used to be aged in clay pots known as “tinajas” until just a few decades ago. Winegrowers in Spain, France and Germany are once again turning to this age-old traditional method of winemaking and taking home top prizes for their amphora wine. Organic winegrower Heiner Sauer from Böchingen in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany produces his “Tinaja” cuvée from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris and is receiving extremely high praise for it. 

One product, numerous production methods

Every winegrower has developed their own strategy. Some fill the amphorae with whole bunches of grapes, while others destem the grapes. Some even press them with their feet first instead of using machines. Leaving the amphorae in the ground ensures a constant temperature during fermentation and subsequent storage of the young wine. It’s also supposed to prevent any oxygen from penetrating inside. Fermentation often lasts for months, until all the sugar from the grapes has fermented. Wine produced from white grapes that have been fermented in amphorae is often also orange in color.

The main idea behind all these wines emerged in France in the 1980s, and it was to create stable, long-life wines without using any preservatives or antioxidants. The movement can be seen as a backlash against the industrialization and qualitative homogenization of the wine industry, which started with the advent of New World wines. Wines with increased alcohol content and stronger wines with more color and fruit are polar opposites to natural wines. Natural wines are now an integral part of the ambitious wine scene and are winning top prizes from enthusiasts. These days, there are specialist retailers who focus solely on natural wines, and in many top restaurants, experienced sommeliers are pairing them with delicious dishes.

Niche markets are not without their risks

At the end of the day, these types of wine are still a niche market, even if they are being hailed by enthusiasts as the only true wines and the most significant achievement in the wine world in the 21st century. Two other aspects need to be taken into account with regard to the current trend for natural wine: There have always been and will continue to be lots of failed attempts. Not every round of production will be a success, and the sensitive produce, namely the grapes, must and the wine, go bad more quickly than most would like. In the worst-case scenario, the wine will turn to vinegar, which is no fun at all. Like the proverbial beer, it can leave a nasty taste in your mouth, including the mouths of ambitious winegrowers.

Dr. Hermann Pilz

Dr. Hermann Pilz has been in charge of the trade magazine WEINWIRTSCHAFT as chief editor for over 20 years. He loves writing about many different topics of the wine and spirits industry.